Writings: The Swordsmith's Daughter

[This post was previously posted on my Patreon blog.]

March! Ages ago, I stumbled across this Tumblr post and it has haunted me ever since.

thefairyknight: Just once I would like the mentor's beautiful daughter to actually, sincerely hate the hero's guts.

Like, not like 'belligerent sexual tension' hate his guts. Not 'learn a valuable lesson about resentment and gets over it' hate his guts. No, just straight up, 100%, wouldn't-piss-on-you-if-you-were-on-fire, the-sound-of-your-name-makes-me-puke-a-little-in-my-mouth hate his guts.

And my entire kingdom for a story where she 'helps' him train and then goes and hands a detailed list of all of his weaknesses and strategies to his rival like 'kick his fucking ass'.

technoturian: Alternatively, how about the 'hero' is actually the villain, because it turns out that the mentor not trusting his own daughter's capabilities enough to let her be the chosen one and instead granting phenomenal cosmic powers to the first rando farmboy who comes along actually wasn't the smartest idea he's ever had.

thefairyknight: Yes this a good addition

In honor of these two wonderful minds, I present this fic for the first of our March stories: The Swordsmith's Daughter. [Trigger Warnings] I tried to keep the story light, but living with the threat of sexual assault is mentioned, along with the usual triggrey things that come with overlords and oppressive regimes. There is mention of sex that is not desired but submitted to in service to a goal. Additionally, there is an ailing parent who dies of natural causes.


---

Father died in his bed on the eve of the summer solstice, whispering his final words not to me but to the pupil he'd taken only that same spring. The golden boy, the chosen one, the lost son of the dead king. A farmboy, no matter what blood ran in his veins, and I was not as easily impressed as Father. Experience had taught me that the blood of a bygone royal lineage ran just as red in the straw of our training room as any other; I'd spent many an afternoon drawing that royal blood from him in our sword matches.

I was expected to clean up for the both of us after our practices. You would think a farmhand knew how to sweep dirty straw, but his time was too precious to waste on frivolities. Father was determined the boy learn in a matter of months what I had labored my entire life to master. And since Father was too weak to lift a sword in battle anymore, I was his surrogate arm with which to teach.

Neither Father nor the boy asked if I wanted to be used in such a manner. My obedience to Father's will was assumed to be absolute. Father despised the man who had overthrown his king, and he raised me with the expectation that I share his hate. For Father's sake I tried, but truth be told I could measure little difference between the tyranny of our new lord and the atrocities of the old. The women of the marketplace had long memories and the stories they told of olden years were very different from the ones learned on Father's knee.

On one thing I agreed with Father without reservation: our people needed a change from the oppression we suffered at the hands of the Usurper King. Yet I harbored doubts that the farmboy would be any better. I watched the way his eyes followed me, the way he took everything I gave him in training and still coveted more, and I noted how rarely it occurred to him that I might have a mind of my own. When he became king, would he recognize how wrong he'd been about women, or would he crush any opposition to his comfortable worldview with the full force of his newly acquired power?

Far from teaching him to do better, Father encouraged him to view me as a tool, though I can only imagine his sputtering denial had I pointed this out. I was assigned to be his teacher, cook, and maid--to be all things to him so he might focus his energies towards this one goal, his goal, to rule. Father made him my lord so that he might go on to be crowned as my king. All the while benefiting from my knowledge, my teachings, my labor. My work was not even credited, for Father was the master and teacher.

I was treated as little more than a practice dummy, as if cloth and straw could teach what I taught him.


---
Before Father's death, he called us to his bedside. He was dying soon, he knew; he took our hands and joined them and declared his blessing for our union. He ordered the boy to care for me and protect me, as though I were a lost lamb and not his equal-or-better in swordplay. My eyes burned behind unshed tears.

Father did not pretend to marry us, not being a member of the priesthood, but neither did he insist on an oath of betrothal. We all three understood I was not meant to be queen--that honor would go to the daughter of the first neighboring king who could be coaxed into recognizing the farmboy as legitimate--but rather a concubine. A mistress taken in his youth and kept for the sake of boyish nostalgia. This was Father's idea of a gift to me, and his final order: I was to bed the boy to secure my future, and his.

He told the boy what he would find on my body, denying me this one last chance to discreetly turn the boy away after Father passed. If the farmboy hadn't already coveted my beauty, now he craved the secrets Father had chiseled into my back with ink and needles. His greatest techniques, captured in words and pictures, deemed too dangerous to leave on something as easily lost or stolen as paper. I was his living scroll to inscribe, and I had submitted to his will as I had to everything before and since.

I'd been carved in the autumn after the worst of the summer heat passed. Days of intense agony followed as he painstakingly copied each word and drawing from his notes onto my skin while I lay stretched on my stomach. I saw flashes of the pages as he flung them onto the hearth, but my body could not discern the shape of the letters penetrating my back; I felt only pain, a fire I thought would never burn out.

Fever lingered for weeks after and we feared I would die in winter; in my delirium, I dreamed he planned to skin and tan me before burial so his work would not be lost. When I recovered my strength, I assumed he would teach me what he had inscribed into my flesh. His fighting techniques, and his secrets to the smithy that made him the master weapon-maker of our age and caused the lost king to knight him and elevate our family to the ranks of nobility, were my right of blood and passage. They lived on my body and should reside in my mind. Yet days turned to weeks. He was silent and would not be drawn on the subject.

Then the boy arrived, sent by a sage who saw the old king written in his face. From that moment, I no longer existed to Father. He had trained me from infancy to master fighting and forging, but here at the finish line he turned away to pursue this new dream: the overthrowing of the Usurper Lord, a thing he never imagined I might do and now believed this farmboy could accomplish with a fraction of my training. He handed to a stranger the key to his secrets, and did not care that the bequest included my body.

I came to the boy in the bath that night, naked as the day I was born. Not because I wanted his touch, but because I saw no other way through the ordeal. I had never shied from discomfort before, and would not start so close to my goal. I did try to talk to him, but he stopped me with a finger on the lips, as one would silence a child.

"My father's notes--"

"Shh. They can wait."

"But I need--"

"I need you."

He made love to me like it was a compliment he was gifting me, and I returned the favor in the only way I knew how: by withholding how tiresome I found his touch. His body scraped me from the inside like a file, but I had suffered far worse in practice matches and had the scars on my arms and legs to prove it. When he was done, I rolled onto my stomach and let his fingers roam over the ink there. He was silent.

"What does it say?"

He didn't question why I was ignorant of what was on my own flesh. Did all men see me this way? As parchment for my father's hand to write upon? I felt his warm breath on my neck, the awed sigh laced with sorrow. "Things no man should know. I understand now why he kept this a secret."

"Tell me."

"No." He shook his head and I could feel the vibration in the air between us. Never had my senses been so heightened; blood pounded in my ears and I imagined I could tear his head open by the nostrils with only my fingers. "I would not burden you with this knowledge. Other men will want these secrets."

I took a deep breath, seeking my center and the core of patience I'd cultivated there. "I am already in danger," I explained, my tone carefully gentle. "The techniques are on my back, inescapably burned into my body. Knowing what was written on my flesh will not make me more imperiled, and may hold the key to protecting myself. Tell me what you see."

His hands were gentle on my shoulders, his voice a flat, dull surprise. "I had not thought of that." I simmered and waited. "No. I cannot share my mentor's secrets with another. But you are right to think of your safety. Tomorrow I set out for the mountains. If I do not return, you should burn the words. It will be painful, but the pain is worth your life."


---
If he did not return. I could be charitable and believe he sought to save me from pain until all hope was lost, rather than preserving my beauty until he was no longer alive to enjoy it. Yet my charitable nature was exhausted when I determined not to kill him with my own hand. Staying my blade was my last gift to Father. There would be no further presents.

The farmboy left before I arose, not to the town square to face the overlord directly but into the mountains. Some wild goose chase to find the last living member of the dead king's bodyguard and learn the secret entrances to the castle. I imagined most such passages would be boarded up or collapsed now over a decade later, but the boy had not asked my opinion.

Fine. That was just fine.

I dressed in my best mourning clothes, taking care to look as rich as we once were. Father's illness had eaten most of our money, but even in relative poverty I occupied a special class. Our family was part of the declining aristocracy from the golden age: living museum pieces set apart from the new gentry raised by the Usurper King. He tolerated Father and his peers because it amused him to keep broken relics as constant reminders to the people of his power. He would tolerate my presence for the same reason.

Visiting court was a risk, but a calculated one. The overlord was fond of women, but age had mellowed his tastes; marketplace gossip spoke of curvy courtesans happy to share their gift of experience rather than gangly captives who would struggle and draw blood; the overlord hated to bleed. I kept my dress rich but austere, accenting with makeup the sword-scars on my arms and burn-scars on my hands from the forge. As a final touch, I cut away my hair and let my womanly glory fall in heaps around my feet.

I felt lighter with my hair gone, strangely grateful to have the excuse of mourning to shed the weight. Faster, more agile; if only Father were alive and well enough to spar, we might see how much this small change improved my technique. I blinked back tears, shuttering those precious memories for another time. Slipping my feet into my finest shoes, I locked the door of our home behind me and set out into town.

The castle gates lay beyond the town square, guarding by bored lackeys who fidgeted in the morning heat. Soldiers could be dangerous--the overlord was not the only man in his castle who craved the taste of woman--but the richness of my attire convinced them not to touch me while my presence was relayed to their betters inside. I waited, still as a statue, and cursed Father again for the ink on my back. All it took was for one man to undress me and I would be in danger of more than rape; covetous men believed sword-secrets were useless once shared, so my life would be forfeit. Father had carelessly ensured I could never marry, nor could I even sell my body to fill my belly. Stupid, short-sighted, and selfish; had he thought of me at all?

I was led into the castle, the cool stone a balm against the outside heat. Traversing long halls and steep steps, the steward brought me to the overlord's morning dining room: a private, beautifully decorated place that served smaller parties than his evening affairs. We were left alone, he and I, though guards lurked in the hallway behind. I hid my contempt at this, at the way he underestimated me because I was a woman; the farmboy should have invested in a dress rather than seeking hidden passages.

"Lady Wiywar, this is a pleasant surprise," he said, turning from the window to give me welcome. His smile was warm without reaching his eyes, a pretense at gentility without the substance. I had expected as much. An entire village might be wiped out for the crime of harboring a single spy, but the daughter of a disgraced noble would be received with kindness if she presented a humbly-bowed head.

"Thank you, sire." I curtseyed so deeply my long sleeves brushed the floor. "You have heard of my father's passing, then." Had he not, I would have been 'Maid Wiywar', not 'Lady'.

"I have. I was surprised by your request for an audience. Your business must be urgent, to rouse you from your mourning." Left unspoken was my father's hate for him, but the awareness hung in the air between us. The overlord had expected me to share that animosity and was curious. There it was, then; I was the day's entertainment, brought in to sate his need for amusement. These were terms I could work within.

I took a deep breath. "Sire, as I am sure you know, my father has been unable to work these past years." He had not forged a single blade for public purchase after the death of the old king, for he would not sell to the usurper and could not sell to others without offending the new king. We had forged pieces as part of my training, but they were for his private collection and no money was made from them. I was left destitute by his passing, and his majesty would know this; our finances were no secret to him.

"His illness made the kingdom poorer for it," the overlord agreed, his smile gentle but with a curious gleam in his eye, like a cat chasing string. "He was a true artist. The best swords in the palace are those he left behind when he retired. Are you here to request a permit to take up his mantle, by any chance? A royal commission could be yours, my dear. I'm told he trained you well."

A commission. My heart leaped in my chest, visions of soldiers outfitted with my work, with my masterpieces, but no. I knew what purposes my art would be put to, and that was not the path I wished to take. I bowed deeply again, not wanting him to read the emotions on my face. "Not well enough, I'm afraid. I am shamed to say his latest pupil was judged more worthy of his training than I. Father bequeathed his best sword to the young man on his deathbed." Bitterness seeped into my voice.

"Taking on a pupil to disinherit his only daughter? Appalling." Boredom crept into those glittering cat-eyes; if I could not amuse or profit him, I would be cut short and sent away empty-handed. I baited the hook.

"Do not blame him too harshly, sire," I begged, ever the humble daughter. "His judgment was clouded by fondness. He thought the boy was the spitting image of his first lord, the old king. The boy claimed to be the king's bastard, and my father fell for his charming tales."

There! The full force of his sudden, immediate attention, hitting me like a strike in the face. He did not speak at first, just breathing. Thinking. Measuring. I respected him for that much; he was cruel, arrogant, and evil, but he was not a total fool. When he spoke again his voice was cautious, feeling out each word. A serpent's tongue, tasting the air. "Lady Wiywar, I would not have you stolen from by such a charlatan."

My deepest curtsy was agreement enough, and hid the smile from my face. He did not need the approval of the people to kill the upstart, of course, but the ability to discredit his foe with the tantalizing image of an innocent victim--robbed of the last reminders of her sainted father whilst in the depths of her grief, no less!--was too tempting for him to resist.

I drew the net tighter. "Sire, my father's smithy is useless to this untrained servant. The forge and the swords within--pieces he built for pleasure when his illness allowed--are yours if you wish them. I ask only to collect my things and retire to our country home. If you could be moved to support your poor servant--", I named a sum of money that raised even his jaded eyes, "--I could tell you all I know about the pretender-prince. My father required my aid in the boy's training and I know his every weakness."

Prices danced in his eyes. The cost of his army, the men he would have to send to stomp out this new threat. A bastard prince, pretender or no, would have supporters among the people. The boy had been good enough to fool my father, and the Wiywar family sword was recognizable as my father's stamp of approval; no small thing among the populace. My price was high, but the cost of ignorance was higher. He slid parchment across the table to my waiting hands. "Write while my steward counts your fee."


---
I left the castle with two donkeys loaded with gold and a third which would carry me and my belongings to the countryside. I waived the offer of a guard; I knew the road I wished to travel and how to protect myself. I had sold my father's remaining swords to the king but had not relinquished my own and best, the one I'd forged under his tutelage and which I knew how to wield better than any living man.

The overlord saw me out through the front gates of his castle. His fingers still stroked the parchment I had given him, the depth of detail on the scroll proof in his eyes that I had held nothing back. Most of what I had written for him was true, and the lies were not ones which could be proven against me. Life had taught me the caution Father had lacked.

"You're a rich woman now, Lady Wiywar," he observed, studying me with those glinting cat-eyes. "Richer than most of the ladies of my court. Tell me: do you plan to retire to the country forever? I could recommend a noble husband for you, if you were so inclined. A lady as wealthy as you, and as lovely, has so many more options than a cottage."

I smiled as I checked the straps on the donkeys and ensured the load would not snap the thick leather. "I like my country cottage, sire." And the forge my father built there, and the materials he left, and the swords I will make to arm those who oppose you.

"But the money, my dear. You will be hard-pressed even to know how to spend it out there. Will you hold parties every night for the local peasantry? Raise a barn dance?" He laughed and I laughed with him as I considered what a very good idea that was. What better way to spread information than under the auspices of a party? I threw back my hair and was reminded of its blessed shortness when it brushed the tips of my shoulders. Loosed and free, as I soon would be.

Still, I had to answer. He'd read greed in my eyes and sought the reason beneath it; he required an answer before I could leave. I told him the truth, meeting his eyes. "Sire, I shall commission a room of mirrors so I can see myself from every angle and I will order a dozen new dresses from the finest seamstresses, each more beautiful than the last. Then I may look on myself every day."

He laughed again, delighted by womanly vanity. A few final bored pleasantries and he withdrew to his castle, fingers still gripping his key to the upstart's weakness. He had assassins to prepare, after all. I mounted the lead donkey and guided the animals home. I would have my things out of the smithy tonight and would be at my cottage by dawn. My commissions could be placed and paid for in town before I left, which was good; speed was essential, and fewer coins in my packs made me less attractive to bandits.

When my vanity room was built, I would sit with ink and parchment and take down every letter of Father's techniques. The words would live in my mind and not just on my skin. Then, when I was ready, I would call the people to my sword. A new Wiywar sword, freshly forged, not the decaying relic held by a farmboy's clumsy hands. I would gather an army to me and train them to fight. My new dresses would be designed for combat and backless to my waist, baring my father's techniques to my own soldiers that they might learn from my very skin.

I had made my decision. I would not live out the rest of my life in fear, constantly clutching cloaks about my shoulders and ducking discovery. I would shout my father's secrets to the world even as I crafted new ones of my own. I would overthrow the Usurper King my way, with my skills and my forged masterpieces and my hard steady work, not on a wild whim and unexamined faith in royal blood. I would save myself and my people from oppression, and I would be no man's concubine.

From this moment on, the bastard farmboy prince was on his own. If he were smarter than I believed him to be, he could seek out my banner and join my cause. I would not join his.

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